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Movie critics: Pros and cons

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Nathan Lee.

Yesterday, Nathan Lee sent out an e-mail to colleagues in which he announced:

In great Village Voice tradition, I was abruptly laid off today for "economic reasons." My employment at the paper ends immediately: someone else, alas, will be tasked with specifying the precise shade of periwinkle frosting atop the cupcakes in "My Blueberry Nights."

And so I am, as they say, "looking for work," though presumably not as a staff film critic as such jobs no longer appear to exist.

In the last 24 hours, Lee's lamentable departure and the whole moribund notion of "the professional movie critic" have been passionately discussed (at The House Next Door, The Reeler, and elsewhere). But before we get to the latter: Nathan Lee, a member of the New York Film Critics Circle, is a perfervid cinephile (I hope he'll appreciate that phrase), a writer whose insights and observations are penetrating, often pointed and even more often hilarious. A few highlights:

On certain homophobic but ostensibly (and patronizingly) pro-gay reactions to "Brokeback Mountain": "If I hear one more straight critic complain that 'Brokeback Mountain' isn't particularly gay, I'm gonna spit on my hand, lube up my c---, and f--- him in the b---."

On "Transformers": "Director Michael Bay never met a rhetorical apocalypse he didn't love. Dude could film a round of Jenga with greater shock and awe than the collapse of the World Trade Center. There are mini-robots hiding inside his mega-robots. His lens flares have lens flares. He evidently controls the magic hour at a flick of a switch, and flips it willy-nilly for 'poetic effect.' In what may constitute the zaniest authorial signature in contemporary cinema, he has a habit of arresting an action set piece in order to indulge outlandishly backlit, monumentally pointless romantic interludes."

On "Zodiac: "... 'Zodiac' is the most information-packed procedural since 'JFK,' though far more restrained when it comes to theorizing.... The result is an orgy of empiricism, a monumental geek fest of fact-checking, speculation, deduction, code breaking, note taking, forensics, graphology, fingerprint analysis, warrant wrangling, witness testimony, phone calls, news reports. 'I felt like I was stuck in a filing cabinet for three hours,' complained one viewer. Exactly!"

On ""I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry": "Tremendously savvy in its stupid way, 'I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry' is as eloquent as 'Brokeback Mountain,' and even more radical. 'The gay cowboy movie' liberated desires latent in the classic western, and made them palpable (and palatable) by channeling them into the strictures of another genre, romantic tragedy. Progressive values were advanced by a retreat to a traditional mode of storytelling, the love that dare not speak its name rendered intelligible through the universal language of the upscale weepy. [...]

"Gay themes won't deter the [Adam] Sandler cult, who can rely on their man not to be a fag. And that, precisely, is the canny maneuver here. Our p---y-loving men's men are New York City firefighters to boot, the very embodiment of all-American heroism (and object of gay fetishism). Sandler's womanizing bachelor Chuck Levine reluctantly agrees to play the homo husband of his buddy Larry Valentine to help secure pension benefits for Larry's kids—one of whom, a flaming little 'mo named Eric (Cole Morgan), likes to practice numbers from Pippin' in an outfit inspired by 'Flashdance.' Oh, snap! Chuck and Larry is the first movie to effectively hijack that all-purpose justification for right-wing bigotry, 'protecting the children,' and redeploy it as a weapon of the homosexual intifada."

On "Chop Shop": "You come away from 'Chop Shop' with a mood, the voluptuous sum of its fine-tuned parts: the way a rundown patch of Queens is always flooded with mud, no matter how recently it rained; the frightful gusto of a junkyard pit bull gnawing on his favorite toy, a giant steel car jack; flocks of pigeons, rice and beans, a plastic-wrapped sneaker sample and castaway flip-flop floating down a rain-slicked street; hot dogs marinated in lighter fluid, smoking from a sidewalk BBQ; the huge, muffled, incantatory chant of "LET'S GO, METS!" that spills out into the parking lot of Shea Stadium, where a 12-year-old boy, dodging the eye of security, pries off hubcaps with a screwdriver. [...]

"All this is imagined by Ramin Bahrani, the acclaimed writer-director of "Man Push Cart" (2006), though 'Chop Shop' derives much of its value from the sense of being found, not made."

Lee's is a valuable, idiosyncratic voice (lower-case "v"). At his best he delights in overturning banal critical conventions of "agreement or disagreement" (if I hear one more critic say "I agree..." or "I disagree..." without explaining specifically what they're talking about, I'm going to... disagree with them!), and approaches a movie from his own point of view, damn the torpedoes.

 

In a thread at girish's a few weeks back, I commented that nearly all of the movie criticism I read these days is in books or on the web -- written by movie bloggers or by paid critics (I'm trying to avoid using the word "professional" in this context) writing for print publications. It wasn't long ago that you couldn't read what other critics were saying outside your own town, unless you subscribed to number of nationally available papers and magazine by mail, and that could be pretty expensive. Papers could always run syndicated reviews off the wires, but their editorship and/or readership preferred original writing, local perspectives, and in-house accountability.

Matt Zoller Seitz speaks for a lot of us when he writes at The House Next Door:

I find these days that I'm more likely to find lively writing and original viewpoints on blogs than in print outlets.

At the same time, though, it's important to acknowledge that the idea of criticism-as-profession (as opposed to vocation or hobby) has a lot of merit. There's no way that a blogger who isn't independently wealthy can cover the full spectrum of current releases as diligently as somebody who's getting paid to do it, much less be able to get newsworthy film people on the phone for thinkpieces, features, obituaries and the like, or cover local, regional, national or international film festivals, as film critics for large and even medium-sized papers have traditionally been encouraged to do (depending on the outlet).

What we're seeing here is the passing of a notable and vibrant phase of movie writing. It'll be replaced by something else, yes, but something very different.

I think we're fast approaching the point where criticism will become, for the most part, a devotion rather than a job.

I feel a similar ambivalence. If you compared the readership of lousy amateur movie bloggers to the readership of equally lousy paid movie critics (in print and online), the ratio would probably be about the same. Most of what somehow passes for criticism (even reviewing) is ignorant, inarticulate crap -- but then, so is the vast majority of movies.

 

Not that one excuses the other, that's just the way it is and the way it has always been, though the average level of competence and watchability in movies seems to have declined noticeably since the mid-1990s or so. Or maybe it's my patience that has declined. But while the best movies seem as great as ever, and the horrible ones just as horrible, the mediocrity bar has fallen pretty low. It seems to me a movie used to have to be significantly better before it could be considered mediocre. (And I've always been somewhat hyper-averse to cinematic ineptitude, deriving little or no pleasure from badness for its own sake.)

In the twilight of what Matt calls "the era of newspapers and magazines" (and network television broadcasting, too), the relationship between art/entertainment and "the press" is changing. Arts criticism in general-circulation newspapers and magazines is a centuries-old tradition, because the arts were considered to be matters of cultural significance. Reviews were often a form of journalistic analysis, reporting on an event that had taken place because the event itself was considered worthy of coverage.

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Lee: Eye wide open.

Mainstream movie (and television) reviewing grew out of that tradition. A metropolitan daily newspaper had a music critic (and, later, a pop music critic, maybe a jazz critic), a theater critic, a book critic, a dance critic, a visual arts critic (painting, sculpture)... They would review performances or exhibitions regardless of whether their readers would later have an opportunity to experience the works for themselves. Because film and television were pre-recorded (as they used to say), the custom eventually became to provide the critic with an opportunity to see the "show" before it became available to the general public, so that the review could appear on the day of its premiere. This, too, wasn't all that far removed from the showbiz ritual of reviewing the opening night of Broadway shows for the next morning's paper.

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From the Vienna newspaper Der Freimütige, September 11, 1806: "Recently there was given the overture to Beethoven's opera 'Fidelio,' and all impartial musicians and music lovers were in perfect agreement that never was anything as incoherent, shrill, chaotic and ear-splitting produced in music. The most piercing dissonances clash in a really atrocious harmony, and a few puny ideas only increase the disagreeable and deafening effect." (Thanks to Nicholas Slonimsky's invaluable "Lexicon of Musical Invective.")

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What has changed? The expectations of the audience, for one thing. The more people have become accustomed to approaching art and entertainment as consumers (trying to get the optimal return on their investment of leisure time and money), the more they've come to think of reviews as buying guides. (And DVDs have made paramount the idea of movies or TV shows as not only products, but possessions that take up shelf space in your life.)

At the same time (and probably as a consequence), criticism itself has been subjected to cost-benefit analysis. I assume that's why some reviewers have been up in arms about the studios realizing they had nothing to gain by screening certain films in advance. Then it's up to the publications to make the call: Is it worth sending someone to see a movie once it opens, so that the review can run over the weekend or early the next week? (In most cases, personally, I don't think so. Unless it proves to be something out of the ordinary, why give it undue attention? Why not just wait to review the DVD release, when there's less time pressure?) Reviews used to represent the first independent evaluations of a movie outside the studio's marketing apparatus. If that is still true, how much does it matter -- to readers, or to the publications who are trying to sell advertising? I don't know.

From my experience as an art-house exhibitor in the '80s, I can say that good reviews could sometimes help get ticket-buyers in the door on opening weekend -- but only if they made the movies sound like something enough people wanted to see. Films that don't have huge ad budgets rely on reviews to reach their potential audience. After Friday's entertainment section was in the recycling bin, though, only word-of-mouth (and more advertising, highlighting the good review quotes) can keep it going.

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When people say that a big Hollywood release is "critic-proof," I think they're assuming the critics have a lot more power than they really do. "Transformers," for example, isn't so much "critic-proof" as "critic-irrelevant." By opening day, when people read the reviews of "Transformers," most of them have already decided whether they're going to see it or not. They may read the review for its entertainment value, or to give them an idea of what to expect (hey, if you can talk about the movie before anybody's seen it, you may have even more cultural currency), but they already know they're going to see it. That's about the only social aspect of moviegoing that's left -- being able to talk about a movie when the ads are still on TV and all over the web. (Even if you never set foot in a theater and simply watched a bittorrent download.)

I've always thought that the "influence" of reviews on box office returns was greatly overestimated. More significantly, I never really understood why people would expect there to be any correlation between the two. A movie succeeds or fails because of three things: 1) the expectations created by the marketing campaign; 2) whether those expectations are persuasive enough to get people to fork over their time and money, rather than spend it on something else; 3) whether people feel they got their time and money's worth. A movie's success in theaters used to depend on word-of-mouth, which might even have a chance of overcoming a bad marketing campaign. That's no longer the case because movies open on so many screens. If they don't hit right away, they're replaced by the next ad campaign. Word-of-mouth doesn't really figure into the equation until the DVD release.

So, why do people read movie reviews anymore (assuming, of course, that they do)? As the founding editor of RogerEbert.com I can tell you that a lot of people still read Roger for guidance and suggestions -- but a lot of them also read him because they enjoy reading HIM. Some of the most popular reviews are also some of the most negative ones, and I'm pretty sure it's not because there were so many people anticipating "Basic Instinct 2" and dying to know whether Roger thought it was any good. (Would people have bought two Ebert anthologies, called "I Hated, Hated, HATED This Movie" and "Your Movie Sucks," if they were only interested in recommendations?)

Nathan Lee says the Voice cut him loose "for economic reasons." We can only assume we know (or someone at Village Voice Media knows) what that means. Is the Voice, which already shares reviews and reviewers with some of its other publications such as the L.A.Weekly, going to scale back its film coverage? Or just rely more on in-house syndication and freelancers? Did they determine that advertising sales were not sufficient to cover the salaries of two staff movie critics (J. Hoberman remains)? Did they feel that having a critical voice identified with the Village Voice was no longer something of value -- to the readers or the bottom line?

I'm afraid that the demise of writing and reporting for newspapers and magazines may be attributable to nothing so much as a self-fulfilling prophecy. Once readers start feeling that a publication offers no particular personality, that one review or reviewer is interchangeable with any other, then the next step is inevitable: They realize there's no reason to pick up that particular publication. The web has more than its share of ignorant, inarticulate movie bloggers -- but it also offers strong, distinctive personalities and points of view. I'm overwhelmed by how many smart, vigorous, thoughtful ones I find, simply by jumping from one blogroll to another (and I add new ones to my right column whenever I can).

In print, I still read the New York Times because A.O. Scott and Manohla Dargis (and Matt Zoller Seitz) mean a lot to me. And because I can get it delivered to my doorstep (not inexpensively) and I like the smell of the newsprint while I'm drinking my coffee. The bottom-liners and quantifiers are never going to understand how to weigh any of those things, and it may be the death of them.

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